Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sitting on the Offence: Sunday Mid-day column Nov. 25


Outrage might not have been an inappropriate response to the discovery that a Class VI CBSE text book published by S.Chand and Sons and titled New Healthway: Health, Hygiene, Physiology, Safety, Sex Education, Games and Exercises says that non-vegetarians "easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes."

But perhaps we should be more concerned that while the book has been in circulation, no one thought it fit to point out its problematic content, which also included pronouncements like “to get married without earning a bad name is every girl’s dream.”

Did no one point it out because these prejudices more or less synced with the average school teacher’s world view or because no one is actually reading any text books in schools? Who cares?

Not the educational establishment apparently. On TV, one school principal declared they would discontinue the book because “This book has definitely offended some community.” This was echoed by the HRD Minister Pallam Raju’s response when he said that "sensitivities of communities have to be kept in mind.”

Let us not even get into what community these gentlemen mean. Like anyone else they are entitled to their stereotypes and preconceptions as long as they don’t act on them.
The real issue is not whether they are prejudiced but that prejudice is not the same as fact.  The central issue is not whether or not a community will be offended but that school books are not supposed to include nonsensical, non-verifiable prejudices parading as facts. It’s not about causing offence, but merely about what is accurate and arguable.

But moral flailing on left and right has become an all-pervasive disease and to see it so embedded in the educational machinery’s mindset at least partly explains the dire improverishment and stupidity of our public conversation and television programs which are petulant schoolyard fights rather than a provocative debate of ideas.

Community sensitivity has been elevated to such a level that it allows us to give gold stars to Shiv Sainiks for not rioting when bereaved. t allows people to feel justified in perceiving every question as an insult and then responding to this with venom and violence rather than considered argument or even intelligent satire

In this context is it at all surprising that the police think it is reasonable to arrest two young women in Palghar for posting a facebook status questioning the unofficial bandh on the day of Bal Thackeray’s funeral, because it apparently has or might offend a community, in this case Shiv Sainiks? After all to offend a community is apparently the central offence in our culture now and a mitigating explanation for violence. Which is why, the destruction of the girl’s uncle’s clinic, resulting in a 20 lakh rupee loss to him does not seem to warrant instant police response. In fact, yet again, only outrage, managed to get the police to respond, not an understanding of legality or fairness.

This is not to say that community offence does not or cannot exist. But by sacralising it in this fashion we have become incapable of responding to anything without the baggage of identity politics.
Education reform in our country needs to keep this in the centre of their vision – to equip citizens with the tools to weave the strands of fact and opinion together without confusing one with the other. That might take us further than the value education kits, semesterisation and privatization that are being offered up by the HRD ministry as the winds of change.

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